Wednesday, September 23, 2009
THE SMART ALECK'S GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY
Richie's Picks: THE SMART ALECK'S GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY by Adam Selzer, Delacorte, December 2009, 336p., ISBN: 978-0-385-73650-3; Libr. ISBN: 978-0-385-90613-5
"One night, two lanterns were hung, and Revere jumped out of bed and got on his horse. He did not, however, shout 'The British are coming.' In 1775, most colonists still considered themselves British. Shouting 'The British are coming' in the colonies would have been about the same thing as riding through Paris and shouting 'Here come ze French!' People would have thought he was crazy.
"What he shouted was 'The regulars are out,' which people knew meant they were about to be attacked by British soldiers--or possibly by guys who ate a lot of fiber. Either way, they knew to get ready for something messy."
If one were to propose that it takes a village to teach American history, then what we have here is the village wiseass -- who was undoubtedly entertaining his buddies by thinking up this kind of stuff back in his own history classes -- putting together a somewhat undisciplined and pretty darn entertaining overview of American history that includes many solid -- if sometimes seemingly random facts about our history, as well as some invaluable lessons in information literacy and myth-deflation.
"Nobody really thought of Paul Revere as a war hero--or thought of him at all, for that matter--until 1860, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote 'Paul Revere's Ride...'"
My own grasp of American history has been greatly enhanced and extended over the years through reading a number of alternative history series as well as numerous notable trade books that focus on specific people and topics. I have not read the latest edition of Joy Hakim's THE HISTORY OF US, but was thoroughly engaged as I read all the way through the 1999 eleven-volume edition. Howard Zinn's THE PEOPLE'S HISTORY was a dense and shocking volume, offering me an entirely new perspective on the motivations of decision makers throughout America's checkered past.
"Stories that Columbus had trouble getting funding because of a belief the Earth was flat were supposedly made up by Washington Irving..."
What I have always loved best has been to supplement my knowledge with in-depth explorations of events and issues in our history such as Ann Bausum's FREEDOM RIDERS: JOHN LEWIS AND JIM ZWERG ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT; Karen Blumental's LET ME PLAY; Russell Freedman's IN DEFENSE OF LIBERTY: THE STORY OF AMERICA'S BILL OF RIGHTS; Pete Nelson's LEFT FOR DEAD: A YOUNG MAN'S SEARCH FOR JUSTICE FOR THE USS INDIANAPOLIS; Chris Crowe's GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: THE TRUE STORY OF THE EMMETT TILL CASE; and Philip Caputo's 10,000 DAYS OF THUNDER: A HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM WAR.
Now, awards committees are not likely to take seriously a history book like THE SMART ALECK'S GUIDE, whose coverage of the past sixty years is primarily organized by the order in which people and events are listed in Billy Joel's song "We Didn't Start the Fire." But for this younger generation's smart alecks, who find the conventional classroom presentation of American history to be lame and predictable, and who might salivate at the thought of being able to contradict their teacher's signing onto one of those long-held myths that I was fed as a kid (and is discredited here), or who will enjoy pointing out when their teacher makes use of one of those famous historical paintings that it was actually painted a century or more after the subjects in the painting had all become compost, this is an American history book for them.
Furthermore, the generally brief, unflinching evaluations of the various US presidents will leave lasting impressions:
"But after he won the 1904 election, [Teddy Roosevelt] moved to the left politically and began aggressively taking on the trusts and robber barons, issuing lawsuit after lawsuit against major corporations,
"He was a popular character, known for being a rough-and-tumble sort of guy--kind of like Andrew Jackson, only smarter, less corrupt and not as intent on screwing Native Americans over. He had so much energy that some of the people around him joked that he was like a six-year-old. He knew he was popular, and loved attention. His daughter Alice famously said that he wanted to be 'the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.'"
THE SMART ALECK'S GUDE includes some great fun features (such as the reoccurring "Stupid Hats From History" and the smart aleck end-of-chapter multiple choice review questions), along with brief discussions of some relevant long-lived conspiracy theories, and some excellent popular culture segments. One of my favorites of the latter is the section on the Flappers of the 1920's which includes a fascinating page full of flapper slang.
All in all, THE SMART ALECK'S GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY will enlighten, entertain, and encourage healthy skepticism amongst students, and might well motivate students to go on to check out some of those in-depth trade books.
Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Posted by Ms. V at 10:03 AM